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Desantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a Covid-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 6, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida's Shameful, Recent Past Echoes in Desantis War on Academic Freedom

Campus 'red scare’ takes Florida back to the '50s.

Just two years ago, Florida state Rep. Evan Jenne introduced a resolution calling for what he called "a formal and heartfelt apology" to victims of one of the most shameful episodes in the modern history of the Sunshine State—a lengthy witch hunt by a legislative committee at the height of post-World-War-II McCarthyism that ruined the lives of university professors and members of the LGBTQ community, and targeted Black activists.

No apology was forthcoming, as the latest iteration of Jenne's bill died in committee this spring. The Republicans who currently run America's fourth-largest state—led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 White House front-runner—had a different idea about the notorious "Red Scare" of the 1950s. They want to bring it back.

Last week, DeSantis signed the latest in a series of measures aimed at chilling political conversation on college campuses and crimping what teachers in Florida's classrooms can say about racism or other troubling aspects of America's past. The new law mandates that Florida's public universities conduct an annual survey of students' views on "viewpoint diversity"—with the governor suggesting that campuses not open to right-wing ideas (like his own) could lose government funding. DeSantis said colleges that appear to be what he called "hotbeds of stale ideology" are "not worth tax dollars and not something we're going to be supporting moving forward."

The new law came just days after the Florida Board of Education—at the urging of DeSantis, who appointed most of its members and appeared before the panel to urge teachers to stop "trying to indoctrinate [students] with ideology"—moved to ban the teaching of what it called "critical race theory." Educators say the ban will make them fearful of suffering consequences for any teaching around America's historic racism.

On one hand, DeSantis and Florida are on the cutting edge of a powerful and alarming development in current U.S. politics, in which a Republican Party desperate to retake Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024 is grasping for incendiary devices. Party insiders say hysteria over discussions of race in classrooms—centered on a misuse of the once-obscure term "critical race theory," which has been mentioned hundreds of times on the Fox News Channel—among white suburban parents is fast becoming a 2.0 version of the Tea Party revolt that propelled the GOP a decade ago.

On the other hand, the moves against academic freedom in the classroom—not just in Florida but a number of conservative "red states"—seem very much a replay of a different grim moment in the history of what the late Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." In the aftermath of World War II and with the rise of a nuclear Cold War, demagogues like Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy claimed that Communists had infiltrated the nation's classrooms as well as government agencies. One of the most fearsome crusades occurred in Florida.

"There are some eerie similarities," Robert Dahlgren—a former Florida academic and teacher who studied that state's wars over academic freedom from 1945-60 and now teaches education at State University of New York-Fredonia—told me this week. He said Florida schoolchildren will likely face mandatory testing on the patriotism-oriented curriculum developed by DeSantis' allies, and he worries that more extreme measures like loyalty oaths for teachers and professors could come in the near future.

The past reign of terror that led to the futile push for forgiveness by Jenne and some Democratic colleagues and newspaper columnists came under the direction of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee—also known as the Johns Committee for its far-right chairman, Charley Johns, who was also the leader of a faction of white rural lawmakers called the Pork Choppers. Much like the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Florida's Johns Committee abused its power to hunt for alleged Communists in academia and elsewhere.

At committee hearings in the 1950s, lawmakers blasted public institutions like the University of South Florida for teaching evolution as established fact or assigning students "trashy and pornographic" books—which for them meant The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye or Brave New World. But the Florida panel was especially focused on rooting homosexual people out of the academy. Professors would be interrogated three or four times over their sexual proclivities. Dozens of faculty and staff were fired, and one professor attempted suicide. The University of Florida's 1959 yearbook is dedicated to an unknown number of students forced to leave, "never to return."

Dahlgren's research found the 1950s' crusade had grassroots support from groups like the American Legion or local Chambers of Commerce eager to promote an aggressive anti-Communist, patriotic classroom curriculum they called "Americanism." That sounds a lot like today's growing number of parent groups whipped into a frenzy by Fox News. DeSantis supporters insist the governor is only trying to protect free-speech rights for conservatives on campus, but a growing number of classroom instructors instead see an impending climate of fear.

"This is a way to scare potential voters for DeSantis," said Dahlgren, noting that appeals to anti-Communism tend to energize Florida's large Cuban-American community as well as newer arrivals from Venezuela. While Florida—with its sizable population, its key role as a presidential swing state, and with DeSantis working to inherit the mantle of Trumpism—gets a disproportionate share of attention, the push to make education about race and American history the hot-button issue of the 2022 midterms is spreading everywhere, even the Philadelphia suburbs.

This is all thoroughly depressing for folks like me who were taught growing up that America had learned its lesson from the stain of the Joe McCarthy era and the false accusations and ruined lives caused by its offshoots like the Hollywood blacklist. Instead, the demagoguery of white supremacy—whether it's couched as "Americanism" or anti-Communism or something else—seems embedded in our national DNA. Ron DeSantis is just the latest in a long line of carnival barkers, and the question now is how many lives will be destroyed this time around.


© 2021 Philadelphia Inquirer
Will Bunch

Will Bunch

Will Bunch is the national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer — with some strong opinions about what's happening in America around social injustice, income inequality and the government.

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